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Drinking at Work to Uncork Creativity

November 23, 2004
Related Topics: Featured Article, HR & Business Administration

T he days of the three-martini lunch are long gone, as is the once proverbial bottle of rye in the bottom desk drawer. Even the typical holiday office party is more likely than ever to be potluck than open bar.

    These days, drinking on the job is anathema in most workplaces.

    Unless you work at Maloney & Fox, a New York City-based public relations firm, where "Bloody Mary Brainstorming Sessions" are a common occurrence and the bar is always open. Lest this conjure an image of slurry outgoing messages, typo-ridden e-mails and 90 percent absenteeism rates, take note that work gets done. Maloney & Fox’s substantial client roster includes Microsoft, T-Mobile, RCA and Wonderbra.

    "It’s always hard to get people to drop what they’re doing and come in for a brainstorming session," co-founder Margie Fox says. "Having a drink warms people up and gets them into the room. If you can knock down an inhibition just a tiny bit, you’re not afraid to say something you thought might be kind of a digression or just plain silly but is actually a really good idea."

    The brainstorming sessions don’t start before 11 a.m., Fox says.

    While many companies long ago stopped springing for coffee to save money, Fox and her partner, Brian Maloney, who nine years ago inaugurated the business by writing their business plan on a cocktail napkin, don’t blink at their monthly bar bill, which they estimate at $350.

    Fox says the cost-benefit analysis comes down solidly in favor of the tradition in terms of enhanced creativity and motivation. She notes that the company, which has 19 employees, has never lost a worker to a rival public relations firm, a rarity in that volatile enterprise, though some have gone on to other pursuits.

    But that may have as much to do with Fox & Maloney’s overall laissez-faire management style, which emphasizes flexibility. No one at the firm has a title, there is no dress code, and employees are given a wide berth during work hours not only to attend to parenting responsibilities or doctors’ appointments, but to duck out for a matinee or even a bit of shopping.

    "We believe they’re adults and responsible," Fox says. "Me being a mother has made having a balanced life more important than anything, including work. But when you have that balance, the work gets done and it gets done better."

    Maloney & Fox isn’t the only employer to allow alcohol consumption on its premises; Coors, for example, has a beer tap in its cafeteria and allows workers two beers, but only after their shift has ended. Enjoying products is a long-standing brewery tradition, according to company spokeswoman Laura Sankey.

    Predictably, the notion of Maloney & Fox’s open bar is enough to cause most employment law attorneys to go into seizure. (There is even a designated vice president of cocktails at the firm, although that’s not his only job.)

    Drinking on the premises can open a Pandora’s box of workers’ compensation issues, says attorney James E. Hall of Barlow, Kobata and Denis, an employment law firm with offices in Los Angeles and Chicago.

    "Workers’ comp could be claimed by any injured employee for any reason," says Hall, who adds that injury to co-workers or outside parties could also invite litigation. "The other issue is harassment or discrimination. An employer’s got to worry about that as well."

    At Maloney & Fox, there has never been such a problem, Fox says.

    "No one ever gets stinking drunk or out of line," she says. "Having a glass of wine or a beer takes the sting out of having to work late, so people feel more at home. And it’s nice to crack open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a new account."

Workforce Management, December 2004, p. 29 -- Subscribe Now!

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